And Other Dangerous Thoughts, Part II

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In Part I of this article, published Thursday, we explored some initial types of “dangerous thinking” about capitalism – that ideology is the invisible architecture we are told never to acknowledge, and that climate change and inequality are logical outcomes of neoliberal free market economics. Here in Part II, we explore the role of ordinary citizens and the possibilities that exist for truly emancipatory social change.

Dangerous Thought Three: We All Live In the Matrix

There are some of us who believe we are exempt from the neoliberal operating system. That this is an American or British, or even now, a Chinese phenomenon. But we would argue that through globalization and the global rule of corporations, we have now entered a late stage of capitalism in which we effectively all live in a One Party Planet – the Neoliberal Party.

Under this party, we are connected into a virtual Matrix by a web of beliefs, laws and structures. We are programmed from birth to believe in the moral philosophy of competition, individualism, the virtue of material consumption, and social status determined by the wealth hierarchy.

We are told that wealth is a sign of virtue. It’s a short step from there to believing that those with the most money are the most virtuous, that they deserve to have power over the rest of us.

We are convinced that paying off every debt to rich corporations and people is a moral obligation – that if we can’t, there is something wrong with us and we deserve to be punished.

In reality, we all know instinctively that we are defined by our connections to each other. Our individuality is a truth within the intricate web of society. Our individuation may help us operate in the world and navigate relationships, but it is not an impermeable barrier that we should celebrate as the be all and end all of life.

It is self-evident that the richest are no less connected than anyone else, which means that they, like everyone else, rely on the society of humans around them for their wealth – on government subsidies and services, on public education and tax-funded research, and on the hard labor of people poorer than themselves.

Virtue is not the preserve of those who have hoarded the most money. If anything, the reverse is true. There is mounting scientific evidenceto suggest that being so addicted to material wealth that you acquire it in the millions or billions is an unhealthy addiction which stunts moral, emotional and spiritual growth, and which can lead to highly sociopathic behavior.

The line between sociopathic behavior and a psychopathy is blurry at best. Just look at how large corporations, very often supported by governments, are forever coming up with even more ingenious ways to create debt, and aggressively promote ways of life and moral codes that require debt so that they can be confident we’ll keep funneling money in their direction in the form of interest. This is a means of ensuring we remain submissive and docile as we focus all of our energy struggling to meet the obligations they have defined.

When there is potential to overturn the operating system – for example, the 2008 financial crisis – it in fact punishes the poor first and hardest, since we are enmeshed in the global capital infrastructure from the food we buy to where our pensions are invested. The old trope holds true that the rich become richer because power begets power, and money begets money. The two are interchangeable. And this is what is most valued by the machine – what we think of as the Matrix.

The Matrix is so powerful and adaptable that even when we do dissent, our dissent often gets commodified and sold back to us. There were Occupy Wall Street posters being sold at Walmart last Christmas for over $40 a pop. Even techniques for spirituality are co-opted to make us better capitalists. There has been an exponential rise of Buddhism, yoga, meditation, Ayurvedic and other Eastern practices as crutches for mental burnout and spiritual ennui in capitalist countries.

The dark spider web of neoliberal belief is so powerful because it binds economic logic to moral logic; thus, to question the economic logic (e.g. growth) is to question the morality of how we live and our very personhood. Since our jobs and our identities are intertwined with the entire system, we are incapable of breaking free of the logic.

As the philosopher John Ralston Saul has said: “We assume that people of merit rise to the top of the system. But in fact, the system finds the people that are best constructed to further its own existence, and draws them to the top.” In other words, if the system values selfishness above all else, selfish people above all others will be rewarded with what the system has to offer.

We have all created our own stories in order to feel as comfortable as we can in the Matrix. People at the World Bank or the Gates Foundation believe they’re helping the poor, and in limited ways many of them are. People in advertising agencies think they’re contributing to society by being creative and increasing consumer choice, and at a micro-level this may be true. But by accepting and then validating the logic at the heart of the system they are in fact ensuring that the murky waters of the status quo stay toxic. If we attempt to prune a tree in a rotten orchard, are we really having any impact on the health of the orchard?

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Dangerous Thought Four: We Live In A False Economy

So what is the root driver of all this madness? How deep do we have to dig? The answer is, until we find what binds all the destructive forces.

Within the current Matrix that we are enmeshed, the root of growth is debt. In a debt-based monetary system, the very creation of money creates debt. Therefore, growth has to exceed interest (which is the payback of debt) in order for capital to increase. We thus get locked into perpetual debt-based growth, which creates inequality and destroys our planet. As David Attenborough said, “If you believe in infinite growth on a finite planet, you are either a madman or an economist.”

We value the wrong thing – i.e. financial wealth – so we in turn measure the wrong thing – i.e. growth. We therefore live in a false economy.

Let’s give a concrete example. The global economy roughly grew at 3% last year, generating an additional $2.2 trillion in “new” products and services. In other words, commodified natural resources and human labor grew in value to the tune of $2.2 trillion. This is the equivalent of global GDP in 1970. So it took us from the dawn of humanity to 1970 to achieve an annual GDP of $2.2 trillion – and we now require that amount of growth just in the delta of a single year. Next year we may need 1974’s GDP, then 1990’s, etc. Soon we’ll need 2015’s GDP in order for the global Ponzi scheme not to implode.

The mathematical way to describe this is that we are now in a period of exponential growth. When this happens in an organism we call it cancer: uncontrollable growth of cells to the point of self-annihilation. And because we are all locked into a Matrix that serves neoliberal market ideology, we become complicit in our own self-annihilation. Growth is couched in jobs and securing investments, and indeed that’s true – so it becomes all of our business to create further growth.

This is not a dark room conspiracy. From the survival of the most basic cell, all the way up to the infinite complexity of the Internet, this is how complex adaptive systems behave. They create and emerge from matrices of energy and matter that support their existence. The logic of capital is merely the logic of a particular complex, adaptive system. As Thomas Picketty has shown in such detail, left to its own devices, the system will always reward capital with more capital, pulled from its sources of production.

In 2011, 110 of the 175 largest global economic entities on earth were corporations, with the corporate sector representing a clear majority (more than 60 percent) over countries. The revenues of Royal Dutch Shell, for instance, were on par with the GDP of Norway and dwarfed the GDP of Thailand, Denmark or Venezuela.

In other words, more economic power is in private hands than public. Most corporations started the globalization process by exploiting human labor where it was cheapest and the rules were the most slack. They then capitalized on the lack of global governance around tax and opted out of the social contract with humanity. There’s now $32 trillion sitting in tax havens, and 60% of world trade happens between multinational corporations’ own subsidiaries, largely through what’s known as transfer mis-pricing.

And then there’s the kicker: they subverted our democracy. Research from Harvard’s Saffra Center for Ethics shows that corporations achieve up to a $220 return on investment for lobbying Congress. Under these conditions, why would you “invest” your money in anything else?

We are told that as the rich get richer the rest of us will get richer too. But we know now that this is a lie. Average wages are lower todaythan they were in the 1960s, and household incomes are stagnating while the 1% are getting richer than ever before. Today, the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion.

We are told that we can solve global poverty if rich countries give more aid to poor countries. But see beyond the rhetoric and it’s obvious that aid is flowing in the other direction. Rich countries are rich because they grab land and natural resources, and exploit the human labor of poor countries. We will only be able to eliminate poverty once we stop this plunder.

We believe that governments run the world, and that those governments are democratic. But the most powerful entities on earth are corporations, not governments, run for private profit not public good. These corporations exercise undue influence over government policies; in a system where money buys votes, democracy is nothing but an illusion, and the hopes and desires of the majority are rarely considered.

We believe that our media is free and impartial. But in reality 90% of the media is controlled by only six corporations, which silence all criticism of their interests. And now our Internet – which we rely on to communicate and share ideas – is poisoned by a global network of state surveillance.

We are told that our current way of living provides some kind of “order,” forgetting that the entire system has been built upon a history of colonialism, imperialism and genocide. Not to mention the constant state of war and plunder from poorer nations that is required to prop up the Western way of life.

The only way to change things is to change what the system itself values, and to change the very rules that articulate and maintain those values.

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Dangerous Thought Five: Another Story Is Possible

These myths are falling apart around us, and the story that they uphold is beginning to collapse. The economic system is constructed by a set of laws and rules and beliefs constructed by human beings. As the comedian Russell Brand says, “Capitalism is not real; it is an idea. America is not real; it is an idea that someone had ages ago. Britain, Christianity, Islam, karate, Wednesdays are all just ideas that we choose to believe in and very nice ideas they are, too, when they serve a purpose. These concepts, though, cannot be served to the detriment of actual reality.”

We yearn for a different story, a better story, a story that is truer to the values we know are right – a story that celebrates our connections to others and to our broader world. We are eager to cast off debts, to stop being complicit in the exploitation of our brothers and sisters around the world, to cease the destructive pillage, to abandon the competition that turns friend into foe, and to recover our relationships. We are ready for healing.

We know that there are other stories out there.

Anthropologists tell us that for most of human history we lived in small egalitarian societies that rewarded cooperation and sharing, and punished selfishness and accumulation. No one is saying we can go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but it’s an indicator of what is possible for human nature – in fact, we have over 90,000 years of inspiration of what is possible.

Just 10 years ago, scientists discovered what they call mirror neurons, proving that we are hard-wired for empathy. And behavioral economists have shown that, when left to our own devices, people tend to default to values of fairness and justice. These are the better, truer angels of our nature.

All we lack is the confidence to see beyond the constraints of the present story. And we start by asking the hard questions we have been told not to ask. People around the world are beginning to do just this. They are rising up in response to our civilization’s crisis – from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, from protests in Brazil to the Chilean Winter, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the student uprising in Quebec, from the Idle No More Indigenous People’s movement to Transition Towns around the world. These are all expressions of a new world that is possible. They are signs of great hope for us all.

The world is beginning to heal, but we can take it farther, faster. There are new ideas bubbling up everywhere that point to a better way. Some of these solutions are not difficult, like moving away from GDP as a measure of progress, taxing carbon at its source, creating a global wealth tax, banning certain types of advertising, putting a moratorium on rigged trade rules (like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership), and even putting limits on how powerful corporations can become (e.g. the anti-trust laws that used to exist around the world, most notably in the United States up to the 1970s).

Others are more radical, like removing corporate money from politics, abolishing military spending, revoking corporations’ right to do business if they don’t serve people’s collective interest, moving to a four-hour work day, providing a basic citizen’s income to every human being, devolving power to local communities governed by direct democratic structures, and even getting rid of our debt-based currency system altogether.

Ideas abound. The decision is ours to reclaim our past and our future. Will we continue as soldiers of the status quo, regardless of the destruction it will guarantee to ourselves and our planet? Or will we stand with the world’s majority to create the better world we know is possible?

  • Aquifer

    “We yearn for a different story, a better
    story, a story that is truer to the values we know are right – a story
    that celebrates our connections to others and to our broader world.”

    And the lack of a coherent one, one that reaches beneath the cerebral cortex and grabs one at the level that we really all live our lives from is what, IMO, the left has singularly failed to produce – and that lack of story is, also IMO, one of, if not the main, reason(s) we are stuck where we are ….

    Say what you like about the right, but they know how to tell a story that reaches people ….

  • Peter Baldwin

    I like the reference to accumulation as an addictive pathology. As good
    nurturing progressives, isn’t it our duty to take their “allowance”
    (wealth) away and send them off to detox AA (Accumulator’s Anonymous)
    boot camps. Or perhaps just mothball them in debtor (creator)

  • HankP

    Very inspiring article about how to effect change for the common good. Massive debt relief by fiat or consensus is a way to bring down the system that enslaves people.